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Simpsons Movie Director Talks About New Film

July 27, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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ANNOUNCER: 20th Century Fox presents the greatest Simpsons family adventure of all time.

JEFFREY BROWN: After 400-plus episodes and a zillion zingers on the small screen, “The Simpsons” are making a long-expected big move or, more to the point, movie.

HOMER SIMPSON, “The Simpsons”: Those idiots don’t even know where we live!

JEFFREY BROWN: Now in its 18th season, the show is the longest-running sitcom in television history, with millions of fanatical followers of the loveable lug, Homer, his devilish son, Bart, worry-wart wife, Marge…

MARGE SIMPSON, “The Simpsons”: You didn’t listen to me after I warned you!

JEFFREY BROWN: … precocious little Lisa and baby Maggie…

LISA SIMPSON, “The Simpsons”: Dad, do something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just another American family living in Springfield, their fictional Anytown, USA.

HOMER SIMPSON: Spider pig, spider pig does whatever a spider pig does…

JEFFREY BROWN: Creator Matt Groening’s simple, hand-drafted cartoon is credited with defining a new kind of television satire. Often hilarious, always irreverent, and at times subversive, the show is as much adult fare as children’s show. Its influence has been felt far and wide.

MATT GROENING, Creator, “The Simpsons”: You can always relate to a family who love each other and who drive each other crazy. “The Simpsons” is just an extreme version of that, a very American version of that.

MARGE SIMPSON: Oh my God.

“SIMPSONS” CHARACTER: Can I help you?

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Simpson’s Movie” is the culmination of four years of work. Marketing tie-ins abound: The 7-Eleven chain converted 12 outlets to Kwik-E-Marts, the convenience store in Springfield. Here outside a Denver store, “Simpsons” fans grabbed up specially produced show staples, Squishee frozen drinks, Buzz Cola, and donuts, or as Homer calls them…

WOMAN: Mmm, donuts.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Simpsons Movie” opens today.

HOMER SIMPSON: Did I save the day?

BART SIMPSON: Actually, you doomed us all.

HOMER SIMPSON: D’oh!

Commentary from the co-creator

JEFFREY BROWN: And we're joined now by one of the people who's been with "The Simpsons" from the beginning, veteran writer, director and producer James Brooks. He co-developed "The Simpsons" television program and co-produced "The Simpsons Movie." He's also worked on other TV shows, such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi," and "Lou Grant," and directed films, including "Broadcast News" and "Terms of Endearment."

So, Mr. Brooks, I've talked to loyal viewers, I've read some commentary. How do you explain the phenomenon that has been "The Simpsons"?

JAMES BROOKS, Executive Producer, "The Simpsons": I'll give you one explanation, because it's one of the best moments I ever had watching something I was connected with. In the second year of the show, I was watching it with my wife's parents and my children, and we were all laughing at different times. And for some reason, it occurred to me, this is one of the best experiences I had watching work that I was connected to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why was that? Laughing at different times told you what?

JAMES BROOKS: Told us that, you know, it was appealing to everybody on their own level, that people didn't have to come together just -- people didn't have to come together in the same way. We would end up talking to you no matter who you were at one point or another in the show.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you surprised at some of the things that you found your relatives laughing at?

JAMES BROOKS: Yes, it was -- all I can say is it really was a great experience for me the first time I caught that. You know, it's always meant something to me remembering it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I've seen Homer Simpson compared to Ralph Kramden and Archie Bunker, you know. Do you see a line of American cultural figures like that?

JAMES BROOKS: Well, certainly dysfunctional family, for sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what was it that captured the imagination of people in that?

JAMES BROOKS: Well, you know, I think at the beginning we have -- you know, Bart, the son of the family, the small boy, I think he was the one that I think captured people's imagination at the beginning. And now it's very much Homer.

"Guilty of good taste occasionally"

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you found over the years that the boundaries of satire have changed, in terms of what you're allowed to say or not allowed to say?

JAMES BROOKS: Well, certainly, you know, we had a show on it recently, and certainly the idea of fining for certain words, you know, just -- and the amount of those fines brought very dark days to people who were involved in making fun of things. And right now I think it was so oppressive that now, just from almost its own energy, it's loosening up.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you've had this show through 9/11. You've had all kinds of things happen in the world. Are there things that you, in writing these shows, your team has felt are off-limits, or do you just want to address whatever you can?

JAMES BROOKS: You know, we've been guilty of good taste occasionally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Guilty of good taste, huh? How does that feel?

JAMES BROOKS: Responsible.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read an interview with the series creator, Matt Groening. He said that in the writing sessions that you're the one that often wants to put in what he called the heartfelt moment, that even amidst all the sharp barbs and the dysfunction that's going on, you feel you need that.

JAMES BROOKS: Well, we all love the family, and it's always been part of what we did. And, you know, in the movie, I don't think any group of adults battles more for more jokes per minute than we do. But for the movie, we needed a story that was worthwhile, and you need emotional comment just for the storytelling.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you say you battle for jokes. Tell us what that's like.

JAMES BROOKS: It's from four to 16 grown people sitting in the room, each one taking a turn trying to make everyone else at the table laugh. And when everybody does laugh, it just gets you to first base. It gets you into some kind of rough draft. We've had more drafts of this script than anybody can count, including our computer.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, so the revising, the revisions just goes on and on?

JAMES BROOKS: Always, always, yes, always, endless.

Creating "The Simpsons"

JEFFREY BROWN: And how long does it take you to write one of these half-hour shows?

JAMES BROOKS: Well, a half-hour show from beginning to end, because it takes so long to animate, takes about a year. The writing of this movie took, for reasons good and brutal, four years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why now make the movie after all this time? And I assume you want to find a way to hold onto the diehard fans, but also reach out to new viewers. How do you do that?

JAMES BROOKS: Well, the idea of doing a movie had always been there, and we'd always said no. And then, about four years ago, we didn't say no. We had a weird contract negotiation, because we care so much about the series, it means so much to us, we have a whole little subculture going there. And we asked the studio that if we wrote a script and didn't think it was right to make a movie, that we had the right to deny ourselves a movie. And...

JEFFREY BROWN: You could just opt out because you didn't like what you had, huh?

JAMES BROOKS: Yes, yes, yes. Well, our self-loathing could actually have an action attached to it. And for a while, people said no, they couldn't see the idea of giving us the right to red light our own movie. And then finally Tom Rothman came in, and he was willing to do it, and that got things started.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you find a way to bring in new viewers while keeping the old-timers happy?

JAMES BROOKS: Well, you know, it's so odd. I mean, we actually have, you know, writers on our staff who started watching "The Simpsons" when they were 8 years old, that actually exist, and there's a certain point where that starts to pay unlikely dividends.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have to ask you about some of -- I was reading about the phenomenon and the hype, and some of it gets pretty thick. Now, "Time" magazine named Bart Simpson one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. And then I read that you UC Berkeley, my alma mater, offers a course on "Simpsons and Philosophy" for credit. And here you thought you were just writing a comedy program.

JAMES BROOKS: Well, I see it as a mad world gone sane.

JEFFREY BROWN: A mad world gone sane? All right, James Brooks, thanks very much.

JAMES BROOKS: Pleasure.